Ferdinand Leitner was a pupil at the Berlin High School for Music from 1926 to 1931, studying composition with Franz Schreker and conducting with Julius Prüwer, who had in turn studied with Brahms and Hans Richter; other contacts during this period were with the pianist Artur Schnabel and the conductor Karl Muck. Having begun his professional musical career as an accompanist to both singers and instrumentalists, among those with whom he worked during this period were the violinist Georg Kulenkampff and cellist Ludwig Hoelscher; Leitner also assisted Fritz Busch at the 1935 Glyndebourne Festival. His first permanent engagement as a conductor was at the Theater am Nollendorfplatz, in Berlin, from 1943 to 1945.
With the collapse of the Third Reich Leitner realised that there would be numerous opportunities for aspiring conductors, and was quick to seize these. He worked as a conductor at the Hamburg State Opera for the 1946–1946 season and at the Munich State Opera for the following season, 1946–1947, after which, between 1947 and 1951, he held the post of senior musical director of the Bach Weeks in Ansbach. He conducted the rehearsals for the world première of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in Venice in 1951, the performance itself being conducted by the composer after which composer and conductor alternated. In 1947 Leitner moved from Munich to Stuttgart, settling there and becoming chief conductor at the Stuttgart Opera in 1950. He remained in this post until 1969, playing a central role in establishing Stuttgart as a centre for creative operatic direction: he conducted thirteen new productions by Wieland Wagner, including the world premières of two operas by Carl Orff, Oedipus der Tyrann (1959) and Prometheus (1968), as well as Alban Berg’s Lulu in 1966. Leitner also worked extensively with the producer Günther Rennert. Following the death of Erich Kleiber he took over as conductor of the German repertoire at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires in 1956.
In 1969 Leitner moved from Stuttgart to Zürich, where he took up a similar post at the Zürich Opera, remaining there until 1984 and simultaneously serving as principal conductor of The Hague Residentie Orchestra from 1976 to 1980. From 1988 until 1990 he was principal guest conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of Italian Radio in Turin; he also taught at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena. In addition to his permanent appointments Leitner was active as a guest conductor, appearing regularly with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestras as well as with several of the German radio orchestras, and as an opera conductor in Chicago, Munich and Hamburg.
Leitner played a central role in developing the record catalogue of Deutsche Grammophon after World War II, and made over three hundred commercial recordings, only a handful of which have retained their place in the general catalogue. As a conductor equally at home in the opera house and the concert hall he was a thoroughly dependable interpreter of a wide repertoire, and could be relied upon to deliver effective and musical, if not always wholly memorable, performances.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).